Summer 2018 has been a summer of blockbuster documentaries and diverse cinema. With Crazy Rich Asians debuting next week, female centered films like Oceans 8 and Mamma Mia 2 drawing out the audiences, and racially aware films like Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting having strong art house showings, the changing face of filmgoing is evolving with every MoviePass ticket sold. Now Spike Lee, fresh off his Honorary Oscar win, brings BlacKKKlansman into our lives. Based on some “fo’ real shit” as the opening credits promise, the film centers on Ron Stallworth (John David Washington)–Colorado Spring’s first African-American police officer–and his infiltration of a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan (aka The Organization) with his white stand-in, played by Adam Driver (a bit flat, more prop than propeller). Biting, sardonic and painfully timely, this film feels vital and fresh, even while discussing blacksploitation films and re-electing Nixon.
Straddling the line between White America’s “pig” police forces and a Black Panther ideologizing, Black Student Union leading girlfriend, Washington nails the middle man of middle America. “Fluent in the King’s English and jive,” the real Ron Stallworth accepts his position of boundary breaker with subdued certainty that he must show his best face to break barriers. Finding himself at odds observing a former Black Panther’s speaking engagement and avoiding being placed in a narcotics sting, Stallworth forms his own plan for exposing the dangers of the KKK. Placing his call to the local chapter and claiming hatred for all but the most Aryan around us, he sets up a position for fake prejudice to draw out the worst behavior as bigots love the company of their fellow bigots. Washington’s emptiness is devastating. As middle man, there’s nowhere he can be himself, and we hardly see the man behind the badge. Discouraged from reacting to the racist cops or getting involved with those he’s investigating, he must be so many people for so many groups. He nails each grizzled line reading: “God bless White America” plays like a refrain more disheartening with every repetition.
Spike Lee’s story of the stupidity and danger of hate groups is scattered in its pacing and darts between themes, but the cohesion between his beats culminates into the seemingly timelessness of his film. The film proves that it does not take smart people to pull off heinous acts; it only takes evil. The blasé way the KKK members face their group shows the indifference and disregard for others unlike themselves, particularly the vile Kendrickson family with aspiring leader Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen) and his wife Connie (Ashlie Atkinson, shrill and crushing) who aspires to do her part in the terrorism disguised as pride. Topher Grace as grand wizard David Duke takes on the public persona of the respectable, business-like klansman. His polite nature tries to set him apart from the rednecks associated with his group. The smiling grin covering his wish for segregation and “white power” (eww) led Grace into a dark place, and his commitment to characterizing one of the most damaging men of the twentieth century displayed impressive nuance in the hate boiling under the surface.
Lee shifted styles scene by scene: the silhouetted faces of students being inspired to revolution, cut sequences to balance the Klans’ viewing of D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation with the student union’s solemn attention to recollections of the worst that film inflamed. BlacKKKlansman could have been better serviced by a more rhythmic editor, and the cinematography from Beyonce’s Lemonade contributor Chayse Irvin drowned out scenes more than it expanded their impact. The film rose above visual perfection and produced a rough, memorable, impactful vision of American race. Jordan Peele’s power as producer, helping to bring this powerful of a film to White America, may prove unstoppable. From Alec Baldwin’s flubbed hilarity in the opening to the Charlotteville footage proving that America hasn’t changed as much as 2008-2016 fooled us into believing, BlacKKKlansman will stand as one of the best films of 2018.